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Keeping cool when getting an earful



Ravens coach John Harbaugh chats up head linesman Tony Veteri (Baltimore Ravens photo)

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh disputes a call with head linesman Tony Veteri during the 2012 AFC Championship game (Baltimore Ravens photo).

If you can keep your head when all about you
  Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you …

If—, Rudyard Kipling

Kipling was never a professional or amateur football official, but just about every sports official claims that famous poem as a motto.  Each week, football officials from Pop Warner to the NFL endure screaming histrionics that would get the offender kicked out of the neighborhood bar or get that person hauled in front of human resources at their work for discipline.  When someone screams at you or insults you what is your first reaction?  You usually want to match your counterpart scream for scream and cuss word for cuss word.  NFL officials are not allowed to do that.  In fact, if an NFL official does make it habit to scream and cuss at a player or coach, they will soon be out of a job.

It wasn’t always like this.  Back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, it was common for NFL officials to verbally spar with coaches on the sideline.  In the book, The Third Team by Richard Lister, former official Al Jury commented, “You could get away with saying certain things to player and coaches that you can’t get away with now.  If one of them cussed you, you could cuss ’em back.  But Art McNally didn’t like that.”

McNally is the NFL’s former officiating director, who, at age 90, still grades officiating film for the NFL. McNally instituted a kill-them-with-kindness policy in the 1970s.  Former NFL official, officiating assistant to Mike Pereira, and UFL supervisor of officials Larry Upson says, “Officials are trained to never lose their cool.  We’re not going to engage in arguments.”  Officials will answer a rules question or explain a call, but then turn a deaf ear to continued arguing.

Upson says the NFL instructs officials not to penalize a player or coach for excessive arguing, unless it is something extremely flagrant or obvious.  If a player or coach calls an official a name, the official will turn to the coach or player and ask, in front of his team, “Are you talking to me?”  If the player or coach backs down and says they weren’t talking to the official, then the flag stays in the pocket.  In rare occasions when a player or coach goes over the line or is totally out of control the officials will flag the offender for unsportsmanlike conduct. Officials are not mandated to take special conflict resolution courses by the league.  “It’s just passed down year-to-year from one official to the next.  We’re trying to foster a good relationship with the players an coaches,” Upson explains.

McNally’s policy on not escalating arguments with coaches took some time to catch on.  There are many stories in The Third Team in which noted officials in the ’70s and ’80s had some pretty cutting retorts to coaches.  Upson even saw one of the veterans on his crew in the 1990s slow to adopt the diplomatic approach.  “There was an umpire on my first crew and a famous coach who just hated each other with a passion.  They spent the whole game yelling at each other,” Upson remembers.

Today, any official who yells at or curses at a coach or player, or allows a coach to “get inside his head,” gets in big trouble.  “You train yourself to not hear what they’re saying.  If you listen to them you lose concentration and take yourself right out of the play,” Upson says.  If an official listens to the coaches yell and work them for a call it will cause them to lose face.  He adds, “If a coach keeps yelling for an offside call on a player who is an inch into the neutral zone, and the official finally calls it, that coach knows he owns that official for the rest of the game.”

College officials are trained like NFL officials when it comes to sideline conduct, so a NFL officiating candidate already has to have good people skills to get a look from the pros.  But, what happens when the NFL hires an official who makes great calls but has a fiery temper; or what about an official who makes great calls but is easily rattled by a coach who screams at him?  “The NFL tries to pair up a strong, level-headed veteran official with an official who needs some help.  The referee can come over and warn a coach to behave himself, but the NFL wants the sideline officials to learn to handle situations themselves.  There are some ways to help out and official, but, if an official cannot control his emotions or if he lets a coach get to him, he will soon be weeded out of the league,” Upson comments.  

So, the next time you see an NFL Films segment with a coach screaming at an official — Marv Leavy calling field judge Armen Terzain an “over-officious jerk,” or Sam Wyche accusing an officiating crew of “home cookin’,” or Jerry Glanville telling Jim Daopoulos he’s “not for long”  — know that each official has spent decades honing his skills to tune out the insults and simply call the game.

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"